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The problem with David Mamet

March 29, 2013|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Playwright David Mamet
Playwright David Mamet (Los Angeles Times )

Critic's Notebook: The dramatist who used to regularly scorch the stage with complex stories has let his anti-P.C. rage blunt his work.

What in the world has happened to David Mamet? The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Glengarry Glen Ross," a modern classic that can survive even the ham acting of Al Pacino at his Broadway goofiest, has become a wide-ranging controversialist, ever ready to tap dance on eggshells with military boots.

Music producer Phil Spector was convicted of murdering actress Lana Clarkson at his Alhambra mansion. Mamet retries the case on HBO in a counterfactual film he wrote and directed that perversely makes Spector the victim of his — cry me a river — outsize personality and fame.

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Mamet's forays into opinion journalism (such as his cynical column last fall in the Jewish Journal reminding those misguided "Jews planning to vote for Obama" of the secret nature of the ballot) are more plausible as the work of a Mamet character than the dramatist who, to rephrase the Auden-inspired compliment once paid to Harold Pinter, cleaned the gutters of American English on stage with his ferocious patter and highly individualized profanity.

Mamet's shift to the right has allowed his defenders to dismiss criticism of his views as liberal bias. I don't subscribe to Mamet's ideologies, but the problem for me has less to do with the nature of his reactionary positions than with the way he has allowed the polemicist to overshadow the dramatic poet.

This is one reason I'm eager to see "American Buffalo" when it opens April 10 at the Geffen Playhouse under the direction of Randall Arney. I want to remember the scrappy Chicago tough guy who revolutionized the way characters speak on stage and forget the swaggering Hollywood transplant forever venting his spleen like a bathrobe-wearing crank in a Saul Bellow novel firing off letters to the editor at the vaguest suggestion of a partisan slight.

I'd also like to develop a case of amnesia that would be limited to Mamet's last three new plays on Broadway: the soggy political farce "November" (later ineptly staged at the Mark Taper Forum), the red-herring-crammed "Race" and the quarter-baked "The Anarchist." The latter, feloniously wasting the talents of Patti LuPone and Debra Winger, was of such inferior quality that Broadway producers, not by nature soul-searching types, were forced to publicly account for their lack of business (never mind theatrical) acumen.

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I don't believe it's fair to ask writers to perpetually live up to the standard of their best work. A fellow journalist asked me recently whether I thought Tom Stoppard's star had dimmed as a playwright. I was surprised by the question.

At 75, Stoppard hardly has to keep turning out work of the first rank to maintain his standing. If he were never to write another play, we would remain in his debt for "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," "The Real Thing," "Arcadia" and "Rock 'n' Roll." That he keeps turning out screenplays (for the underrated "Anna Karenina") and television scripts (for the artful "Parade's End") only enhances the luster of his reputation for supremely articulate drama.

Mamet's place in the theater history books is just as assured, though the addendum he's writing is a doozy. One can't fault him for his energy or rate of production. He's more prolific at 65 than most playwrights are at 30. No, his problem dates back more than two decades to "Oleanna," the play in which he took on the bugaboo of political correctness and got mired in a battle within his own mind that seems destined to become a second Thirty Years' War.

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Written in the charged wake of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy, "Oleanna" dramatizes the conflict between a male college professor and a female student whose seemingly ungrounded accusations have disastrous consequences on his academic career. The play possesses an undeniable Mametian vigor in its demonstration of the way insecure power games play out in language. But the deck is so shamelessly stacked that it's never a fair fight.

The student's wrath, stoked by an unseen "group" of jargon-spewing feminist rabble-rousers, distorts everything we have witnessed between the two characters. What's more, Mamet keeps reminding us of all the professor has to lose by her trumped-up allegations. During the play's off-Broadway run in 1992, men in the audience were reportedly erupting in misogynistic hurrahs when the professor finally unleashed his anger — a reaction more in keeping with the black-and-white morality of melodrama than with the ethical subtleties of superior drama.

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